What is ecological thinking?
One of the critical lessons that ecology is teaching us is that humans are not separate from nature, but are members of the web of life (Hes and Du Plessis 2014).
The first step to integrating ecological thinking into scenographic practice, involves grasping the fundamentals of ecology and living systems. Ecology demonstrates how eco-systems are not just a collection of species, but are also relational systems that connect humans, as organic systems, with animals and plants – It stimulates an increased understanding that the world is fundamentally interconnected and interdependent (Hes and Du Plessis 2014). From an ecological perspective, humans are not separate from nature but are deeply embedded in the ‘web of life’ (Capra 1994). As Naess (1989) suggests, “A human is not a thing…but a juncture in a relational system without determined boundaries in space and time” (1989: 79). Thus, humans are an integral part of the processes of co-creation and co-evolution that shape the living world (Hes and Du Plessis 2014).
Ecological thinking requires a broadening of identity in how we see ourselves in relationship to the world around us. Hes and Du Plessis explain that “as one’s identity expands, so does one’s view of the world. With these changed perceptions also come a change in values, behaviours and possible leverage points” (2014). Sean Esbjörn-Hargens (2010) describes this ‘widening of identity’ as a transition from ‘me’ (egocentric) to ‘my group ‘(ethnocentric) to ‘my country’ (sociocentric) to ‘all of us’ (worldcentric) to ‘all beings’ (planetcentric) to finally ‘all of reality’ (Kosmoscentric). In performance practice, this could be interpreted as a widening in identity from ‘me’ as the artist to considering how I might create work that actively engages with communities as well as the ‘living world’.
This notion of ‘creative expansion’ inspired by Esbjörn-Hargen’s ‘widening identity’, asks the performance maker and scenographer to engage with the work on multiple levels – it challenges the theatre artist to look beyond usual anthropocentric values (such as egocentric, ethnocentric, sociocentric and worldcentric perspectives) often adopted in the theatre practice to also incorporate planetcentric and kosmoscentric views.
The challenge of ecological thinking requires altering our assumptions, attitudes, to understand that we are participating in, and co-evolving with nature (Eisenberg and Reed, 2003: 3). In other words, in order to engage with the world from an ecological perspective, we need to see ourselves as part of (rather than above) nature – to engage with the ‘human’ aspects of our context in relationship to the biophysical context (Hes and Du Plessis 2014). This implies making a conscious effort to contemplate how our work as theatre practitioners might connect to broader communities and ‘living systems’.
Ecology incorporates principles of wholeness, interdependence, diversity, partnership, energy flows, flexibility, cycles and sustainability (DeKay 2011: 65). These themes of interconnection, relationship and co-existence underpin the value system of ecological thinking or what Dominique Hes and Chrisna du Plessis (2014) also describe as the ‘ecological worldview’. The ecological worldview presents a universe that consists of dynamic relationships and processes – It is a “globally integrated view, acknowledging and integrating diversity and previous levels of development, focusing on the long-term future of the world system” (Hes and Du Plessis 2014). In summary, the ecological worldview asks theatre artists and scenographers to think beyond the transient qualities of the theatre or site, to also understand how their work affects wider communities and living systems.
Ecological thinking is profoundly about understanding that ecology is not just about non-human things, it has to do with the way we imagine ourselves as part of nature (Morton 2010). Adopting an ecological perspective entails altering the lens through which we perceive the world and ourselves (Kegan 1982). At the core of this shift is a change in focus, a moving away from egocentric and anthropocentric thought (separateness) to include concepts of integration, awareness and holistic perception (interconnectedness). Mark DeKay explains that this is no easy cognitive task, but rather part of a transition in our developing capacity as humans (2011: 60). Despite this challenge, ecological thinking is crucial to designers of any discipline engaging with sustainability and offers a holistic approach to the possibilities of producing positive benefits as well as remediating past environmental damage (Zari and Jenkin 2010).